Perhaps you have heard people say that intonation is the melody or the music of spoken American English. That's because English speakers use different types of intonation or pitch patterns in sentences and phrases.
These intonation patterns, which are not visible in the written language, are extremely important because they convey meaning. If you are not aware of how Americans use these pitch or intonation patterns you could risk confusing or offending your listeners.
Here are some examples of how American listeners interpret pitch patterns:
If you use a very high pitch it may indicate that you are surprised.
If you use a very low pitch it may indicate that you are angry.
If your pitch is too neutral it may indicate that you are bored or uninterested in the conversation.
In spoken American English intonation patterns can occur over phrases or entire sentences.
The most common intonation pattern in spoken English is rising falling intonation. In rising falling intonation the pitch RISES on the most important word in a sentence and then drops to indicate that you are finished speaking.
Americans use rising falling intonation in declarative sentences, commands and when asking questions that begin with the words who, what, where, when and why.
For example, in the sentence-WHERE is she GOing?-the pitch rises and falls on the word GOing.
Another common intonation pattern is rising intonation. In this pattern the pitch rises and STAYS HIGH at the end of the sentence. When you use rising intonation it indicates that you are waiting for a reply from the listener.
Americans use rising intonation for questions that they expect to be answered with yes or no, or when they are expressing doubt or surprise.
For example, in the sentence-The president is HERE?!-the pitch rises and stays high at the end of the sentence.
Even if you pronounce all of your American English vowel and consonant sounds clearly you will still have a difficult time communicating with American English speakers if you don't use the correct intonation patterns. Your speech patterns may sound rather boring to American listeners or may even contribute to misunderstandings!
Try to listen carefully to the way Americans use sentence intonation and copy the patterns in your own speech. This will make your English sound much more natural so that Americans will enjoy listening to you.
Susan Ryan is an American English pronunciation and accent reduction teacher in Washington, D.C. Visit her Accent Reduction Classroom or her American English Pronunciation blog http://www.confidentvoice.com/blog/ to find more tips and lessons that you can use to improve your American English communication skills.